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Survival of the Kindest?

with Jasvir Singh

Sympathy may be our strongest instinct, according to UC Berkeley researchers. Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, believes that humans are successful as a species primarily because of our “nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.”

 It seems that humans are genetically predisposed to be empathetic.  In one study, Laura Saslow, of Oregon State University, and Sarina Rodrigues, of UCB,  found that people with a particular variation of the oxytocin gene receptor are better able to read the emotional state of others and get less stressed out under difficult circumstances.

 Oxytocin (informally known as the “cuddle hormone”) is secreted into the bloodstream and the brain, where it promotes social interaction, nurturing, romantic love, and more. "The tendency to be more empathetic may be influenced by a single gene," Rodrigues said.

 The beliefs of these researchers seem to contrast with Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest evolutionary theories. Therefore, these researchers go on to examine how these traits ensure our survival and raise our status among our peers. UC Berkeley social psychologist and sociologist Robb Willer answers this question by claiming that the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield.

 Through their investigation, Keitner and his team have found that oxytocin plays a key role in communicating and calming. In one UC Berkeley study, two people were separated by a barrier and allowed to communicate through touching each other through a hole in the barrier. Researchers were able to see from activity in the threat response region of the brain that many female participants grew anxious. However, as soon as they felt a sympathetic touch, oxytocin was released, calming them immediately.

According to Science Daily,

"This new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin's observations nearly 130 years ago, that sympathy is our strongest instinct," Keltner said. Perhaps Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory would be better posited as “survival of the kindest.”